Justice  /  Origin Story

The Centuries-Long Fight for Reparations

And how black activists won the support of Democratic candidates.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

There is a long and old tradition of black men and women demanding restitution for the time they were enslaved. As early as the 18th century, former slaves such as Belinda Sutton of Massachusetts formulated individual demands for reparations from their masters. (Sutton ultimately received a pension, though hers was a rare case.)

Collective calls for reparations emerged at the end of the 19th century, when it became clear that the post-Civil War attempts to redistribute land to former slaves and ensure full citizenship would not be accomplished. Thousands of former slaves gathered around the country to demand that Congress pass a bill providing them with pensions. But the movement was not successful. Its leaders, including a fearless formerly enslaved woman, Callie House, were prosecuted and sent to prison, accused of mail fraud.

Reparations activism resurfaced at the end of World War II. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust obtained financial reparations from the new German government. African American activists, who at this point identified themselves as descendants of slaves instead of former slaves, saw an opportunity to voice demands for similar compensation. Pan-African activists such as Paul Robeson, who signed the petition “We Charge Genocide” in 1952, evoked the “tens of millions sacrificed in the slave ships and on the plantation” and stated that segregation and Jim Crow were genocidal policies against African Americans.

Yet, such demands for financial and material reparations for slavery were not an element of the civil rights agenda, which emphasized equal legal rights before any other claims. After the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., however, new black nationalist groups made reparations dominant elements of their programs. Because achieving legal rights erased neither racism nor the racial wealth gap that maintained the economic exclusion of black Americans, it was clear that more drastic action was necessary.

One such group was the Republic of New Africa. Founded in Detroit, its president was the author and civil rights leader Robert Franklin Williams, who had been head of a North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the author of the influential book “Negroes With Guns.” The organization embraced the cause of reparations, demanding the federal government award land to African Americans for the creation of a black nation in a territory corresponding to the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.